It’s been a difficult series so far for England’s opening batsmen: Dom Sibley and Zak Crawley have both failed to reach double figures in their three innings, falling prey to the left-arm spin of Lasith Embuldeniya on each occasion.
With Jonny Bairstow, who has averaged 55 at three in the series, rested for the first two Tests against India, England’s top order suddenly looks rather unstable ahead of a challenging four-match series.
We assess the situation at hand and England’s current top-order candidates ahead of their first couple of Tests against India.
Sibley impressed in his first 12 months as a Test cricketer, hitting hundreds against South Africa and West Indies. But while impressive against pace, he has looked less comfortable against spin, and following on from a couple of dismissals to Yasir Shah’s leg-spin last summer, he has now fallen to Embuldeniya on three occasions, averaging 2.00 in the process.
On the back of his standout 267 against Pakistan, Crawley has found it far tougher going in Sri Lanka, having faced 71 balls and been dismissed three times for the total sum of 22 runs. What should be noted in regards to both Crawley and Sibley is that this is their first taste of Test cricket in Asia, with the challenge against constant spin starkly different to that faced in the breeding ground of the County Championship.
The man coming in
Barring Alastair Cook, no-one has opened the batting more for England in Test cricket since Andrew Strauss’ retirement than Rory Burns. The left-hander seems set to return to the XI in place of Bairstow. His sample size in Asian conditions is small and with middling returns: in his debut Test series, he visited Sri Lanka for three matches and averaged 25.83 from six innings with a high score of 59.
Potential promotions worth considering
He may have an aversion to batting at No.3 – this debate has raged for many moons now – but a short-term move shouldn’t be ruled out of consideration. That’s where Root batted against India when he toured there in 2016, finishing as England’s leading run-scorer in the series, striking a century and three half-centuries. Furthermore, his Bradmanesque form in the ongoing Sri Lanka series has seen him enter the action quicker than usual anyway.
Where this argument obviously falters is in regards to Stokes’ workload with the ball, though England did use him at No.3 for one Test on the 2018 tour of Sri Lanka. It resulted in a score of 19 and another innings in which a nightwatchman bumped him back down to the middle order. Nonetheless, undoubtedly one of England’s best batsmen, it could be worth considering a promotion for Stokes – particularly if another all-rounder (Chris Woakes or Moeen Ali) is fitted in at No.7.
With Stokes returning to the side, Lawrence will most likely have to vacate the No.5 slot he has taken on against Sri Lanka. Despite a cheap dismissal in the first innings of the second Test, Lawrence impressed on debut with a half-century and nerveless 21 not out in the fourth innings – placing him in the top order, where he has often batted for Essex, could be a way to fit him into the XI.
Waiting in the wings
A reserve on the tour, Bracey is a back-up option to open the batting. He was part of England’s bubble last summer and impressed in the intra-squad match that preceded the three-match series against West Indies with an innings of 85. An organised and compact left-hander, were he to come in for either Crawley or Sibley, it would also be with a lack of first-class experience in such conditions.
Having missed the Sri Lanka series with a shoulder injury, it is not yet known whether Pope will be fit to take on India. If he is, slotting him in at first-drop could be a way for England to avoid a difficult decision between him and Lawrence in the middle order. Arguably no batsman since Root has emerged for England with such a textbook technique, and some have earmarked No.3 out as where he will end up in time. It would be a challenge for another without Test experience in Asia – Pope left England’s last tour of Sri Lanka early due to the surfeit of batting options available.